Archive for August, 2014

Fix the Police, Part 2

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

All right. Ferguson. Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson.

Let’s talk about the professionalization of the security forces (those are the police plus the armed forces). In my dissertation, I posit the idea of a “security-force configuration,” which is the set of institutional relationships among the army, police, and politicians. In Latin America, there have historically been two kinds:

  • Militarized security-force configuration: The army controls the police, in part because it has vastly superior resources, but also because it has the power of appointment and oversight. Both entities are professionalized, meaning that merit rather than connections are the primary means of getting ahead. There’s a unified military command, which means the police are in essence an extension of the army.
    • Locus of Control: Soldiers
    • Balance of Resources: Army > Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army = Police
  • Politicized security-force configuration: Politicians have the power to appoint and fire police officials. The police and army have roughly equivalent resources, and the army is much more professionalized than the police. The police have their own command, and their loyalty to the national regime is unpredictable.
    • Locus of Control: Politicians
    • Balance of Resources: Army = Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army > Police

Neither of these is a picnic. They each create a distinctive kind of vulnerability in the political system: militarized ones are susceptible to national coup (think Argentina and Paraguay), because the unified military command can turn against the government, and politicized ones are subject to local insurrection (think Colombia and Mexico), because local party actors use local forces to fight local battles.

What’s striking about Ferguson is that it reveals how much the U.S. actually has a politicized security-force configuration, even as we’re talking about how (undeniably) militarized the police have become. There’s a transfer of materiel from the army to the police, which makes the balance of resources more equal (though far from equal), but more importantly, the level of professionalization doesn’t change. If anything, the contrast gets more stark: police don’t know how to use their new tools (toys). Merit is devalued: those who know how to use these tools better don’t get ahead, because no one knows how to use them. For example, it’s been pointed out that soldiers are trained never to hold their weapons above a 45-degree angle unless they’re being attacked; police in Ferguson aren’t respecting those norms.

But what’s different about the U.S. system is that we have inherited the tradition of the sheriff from England, and that’s often an elected position. In the Colombian politicized security-force configuration of the first half of the twentieth century, the president appointed governors, who appointed state police chiefs as well as mayors, who appointed local police chiefs. There were no elected police officials, they were an extension of the party system. The sheriff is different; he or she has a direct accountability to voters.

And here’s where foundations, particularly community foundations, can play a role in depoliticizing our country’s security-force configuration – by placing greater pressure on the elected office of sheriff to be more accountable to community norms and professional practices, particularly with regard to military hardware, and funding advocates who seek to increase citizen oversight of the police.

Because there’s a third security-force configuration that we should be striving toward: a democratized one.

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Fix the Police

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

My shtick is usually to do song titles as blog post titles, but tonight, I have to change it up a bit. But just a bit.

Ugh, Ferguson. So, my dissertation was about the military, the police, and politicians – particularly state and local politicians. Governor Jay Nixon, meet the police chief of Ferguson. There, we have the militarization of the police that has gotten out of the control of politicians. I looked at the inverse, when the politicization of the police gets out of the control of the military, which is the structure that most folks assume about Latin America, the region on which I focused.

I don’t know that I have a lot to say about how to reverse the militarization of the police, just that it’s likely to take a long time, as I’ve seen pointed out online today. It’s helpful to think in terms of organizational incentives. My Berkeley classmate Maiah Jaskoski looked at this in Peru and Ecuador, what else the military does when it doesn’t have external defense to focus on.

A brief anecdote to illustrate. I was in Colombia visiting family over Easter week. We were a few hours outside Bogota in a vacation area, driving between town and the house where we were staying. We passed a military checkpoint along the way, where nothing much was happening other than keeping some uniformed dudes busy in the sweltering heat. I asked my cousin’s husband, who’s a recently retired senior officer in the national police, why the military was running a highway checkpoint. “You see, they’re worried for their jobs. The peace process [with the guerrillas] looks like it might actually stick this time, and then what will they do?” The military has been fighting the internal terrorist threat for many years, and since the late 1950s, the national police have been the “fourth force” within the armed forces. But what does the army do when its decades-long internal enemy surrenders? My cousin was suggesting that the army needed something besides fighting to justify their continued elevated budget after the conflict would in principle be over.

With the militarization of local police departments, we see something analogous, where military-grade SWAT gear get passed on to units in towns and cities like Ferguson. One of the most impressive social-media responses has been Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tweeting that the pictures show police in a small city having better gear than the U.S. military invading Iraq eleven years go. As we’re seeing, and has been emerging under the radar until it came chillingly to light this week, the militarization of the police is a very dangerous development.

Here’s why, beyond the obvious. You have to pay attention to the professionalization of the security forces. How is their mission defined, and what are the principles on which their training is based? In early- and mid-20th-century Colombia, you had a situation where the army had professionalized, but didn’t have overwhelming force relative to the police. And you had a highly unprofessional police yoked to the whims of local and state politicians – but that wouldn’t automatically get whupped in a fight with the army. So when partisan politics turned deadly in the 40s and 50s, what you saw was police defecting unpredictably to join the rebels, and the army not able to simply quash them. So you got recurrent local-level insurrection that didn’t aggregate up into revolution, as it did in Mexico. Politicians and their enemies had local tools to fight local problems, and that’s why the conflict stayed local.

In Ferguson, we see local conflict that’s extremely, EXTREMELY one-sided, and that is not rebels vs. the government, but the government vs. unarmed people living their lives. But there’s a terrible combination of unprofessional (I don’t mean that they’re not trained, I mean that they’re not clear that their mission is to protect and serve, rather than search and destroy – H/T Talking Points Memo, I believe) and wildly over-resourced police. This is a recipe for disaster. Here, we’re not talking about the police vs. the army, but the police vs. a part of the population. And the disconnect in power, as well as a willingness to respond disproportionately, is just stunning.

So here’s what I come back to, because this is a blog about philanthropy and democracy. Community foundations have a role to play here. They are civic leaders, or they should be, and these are civic issues about how public resources are used to actually promote public safety and community welfare, which can’t happen when a significant proportion of the population is systematically profiled and demonized. I really like the approach that Perry & Mazany and Albert Ruesga take in Here for Good, talking about community foundations as “borderlands institutions” that have to embody “agonistic pluralism.” This basically means that the typical tension between the more conservative proclivities of many donors and the more progressive inclinations of grantees and staff is not a problem but actually a strength. Because as Congress demonstrates, there are precious few places where people can disagree civilly these days across partisan lines. And community foundations can and should hold that tension productively.

I think of that holding as “advancing difficult dialogues in the community,” and at work, I talk about it as one of the non-grantmaking roles that funders can play. Well, here’s a chance. “How does our community promote public safety in a just and real way – not based on uninformed, unexamined prejudices, and in a way that keeps us all safe, and does not sacrifice the public lives of some for the perceived comfort of others?” Civilian oversight of the military is one of the key innovations that has finally let Latin America emerge from a long shadow of military dictatorships. It’s sad that we have to think in terms of increasing civilian oversight of the police, but that’s what it’s come to.

How can community foundations and other place-based funders advance difficult dialogues about the proper role of the police and other law enforcement officers in promoting peace with justice?

Double Vision

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Short and sweet this time: I heard a great description of what I think is an essential skill in philanthropy, the ability to have focus but not be rigid about it.

The firm for which I work is bidding on a project with a group of community foundations, and one of the people involved was on a podcast about philanthropy, so I took a listen. He reflected on his experience as a community foundation leader, saying “you have to be single-minded, but also open-minded,” or words to that effect.

That strikes me as just right: I think the art of “strategic philanthropy” is to take your time figuring out a problem that is at the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and where the need is, and where a focused intervention can really make a difference. I keep thinking about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work on juvenile justice, from hearing CEO Patrick McCarthy speak about it at a conference. They saw that it really makes a difference in the juvenile justice system where kids end up on their first sentencing: if they go right to prison, their outcomes are much worse than if they’re put in a community-based setting. But the more extreme response is more common than it should be. So the foundation has focused on helping to create conditions where that sentencing decision goes the other way. They’re single-minded about making that change, because they believe in the potential upside.

But then, once you’ve found that focus, you should be open to good ideas, wherever they might come from. And such good ideas include having those directly impacted play a leading role, including in decision-making, on how resources should be allocated in pursuit of that goal. Work across sectors, empower nonprofit leaders and those directly affected to speak and lead, look for insight from throughout your own organization, draw on the experiences of your funders – once you’ve figured out what to be single-minded about, you can be gloriously open-minded about everything else.

It’s not easy to get there, because not that many problems may fit those criteria of mission, need, capacity, and ripeness, but when you find them, go all in.